Third Sunday after Pentecost
When I was younger, I heard many sermons about King David. Of course, David’s story and several Davidic themes form a significant strand of Old Testament thinking. These sermons usually elevated David as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Because he was king of Israel, he was God’s person for the job. Often, the focus on this central Israelite ruler was set alongside a fervent push for Christian leaders to be in positions of power and a strong sense that the United States was/is a Christian nation. Israel was God’s nation, and they had a king. Why should this version of God’s nation be any different (even if the official title of the leader is different)?
My experience is not unique. Many churches emphasize David’s story as a way to say something about our own time and setting. For example, we can easily find folks defending their chosen political figure’s indiscretions by invoking David’s story. They say, “Yes, David made mistakes, but God still backed him. Therefore, this political leader’s place is safe because we are certain that God also backs him or her.” In the end, the activity of the nation (including military action) is legitimated as part of God’s plan and purpose for the whole world. When turning to the appointed texts for this week, however, we find a different story unfolding.
In the Old Testament reading, we find the people asking Samuel to give them a king. They even say why they want a king – so they can be “like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). On its face, this seems like an acceptable request, but Samuel is troubled and asks God for guidance. The response is important in two ways. First, God agrees to give them a king, but only after describing the problem with their request: “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7).
What? Asking for a king is a rejection of God? This is much different from those sermons mentioned above. Doesn’t Israel need to have a strong leader? When considering their request in more detail, we begin to see that rejection of God in phrases such as being “like other nations” and having a king so that the king can “go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20). It seems that the Israelites do not just want a king (after all, they have God as king). They want to be masters of their own destiny as well. In short, they want to win.
Samuel warns the people about how the king will do business, taking their land, possessions, and family members for the imperial machine (words that predict the state of affairs while Solomon is king). However, the Israelites are not listening (to Samuel and to God): “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:19-20).
Psalm 138 leans in this direction, yearning for the day when “all the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord” (Psalm 138:4). That all kings will praise God means that there is not one central king (whether subservient to God or not). In contrast to the “ways of the king” described by Samuel, the ways of the Lord are characterized by steadfast love and faithfulness, regarding the lowly, and rescuing from danger (Psalm 138:2, 6, 7).
The New Testament epistle reading also reminds us that the consummation of God’s kingdom is taking shape as it breaks out of the circumstances of the present (whether good or bad). That is, the impermanence of the present kingdoms and nations will fade in the light of God’s reign. Thus, “we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
The gospel lesson builds on all of these reflections. It involves two stories that have been joined together, a common Markan technique. In the first, Jesus’ family seeks to stop him because they believe he has “gone out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). Once they arrive, Jesus is notified of their presence. He responds that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). The second story occurs while his family is traveling. Jesus encounters some scribes who are convinced that he is demonically casting out demons. Seeing their argument as absurd, he replies, “if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).
Three things stand out in this passage. First, both stories speak about doing the will of God or not standing against the house of God. Second, in both stories, Jesus interacts with people who presume to know what he should be doing. These folks – his family and the scribes – are thought to be insiders, but they fail to understand him. Third, Jesus is establishing a new social reality, a new house, “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). We see this when Jesus declares that those who do the will of God are Jesus’ family. To be in this social grouping is to stand apart from other possible groupings.
Israel’s rejection of God as king would seem to cut against the grain of this gospel text. That is, in wanting a king like the other nations, Israel placed itself against God, thereby dividing God’s house. Like Israel, to look for a new king (or president) to rule a Christian nation is to reject God. Jesus has established a new house and a new family. Indeed, these new social realities free us from the trappings of controlling our own destiny – of being winners – so that we can serve the God who is King.
Image credit: The Old King, Georges Rouault, 1936